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Jean Gabin was France’s most durable star. In nearly 100 films, from the early sound era until his last picture in 1976 (the year of his death), he gave performances of such simplicity that he seemed not to be acting at all. The son of two music hall entertainers, he made his film debut in 1930; by the end of the decade, he had gained an international reputation as the strong, silent, craggy working-class hero—or doomed antihero—of major works directed by Julien Duvivier, Jean Renoir, and Marcel Carné. The typical Gabin role was that of a vulnerable yet stoic man of the people—an Oedipus in overalls, at odds with a hostile universe. This 17-film retro covers every period of the actor’s long career, although his myth was very much of its time and place—the Popular Front era, with the rise of Nazism and the threat of war in the background.
Renoir said, “Gabin’s whole art is in delivering only the essential.” In Duvivier’s fatalistic Pépé le Moko (1936), he’s surrounded by a cast of theatrical actors who are busy performing. Gabin does nothing, yet you can’t keep your eyes off him. Pépé was a huge hit, and the erotic chemistry between Gabin and Mireille Balin was palpable—they were re-teamed in Jean Grémillon’s Gueule d’Amour (1937). Here, Gabin is a cavalry soldier in dashing uniform—Don Juan in a Midi garrison town who gets his comeuppance from a Parisian femme fatale. The film kicks off as light romantic comedy, then turns into a dark study of masochistic sexual obsession as Gabin loses everything, most importantly his macho self-esteem. It’s a totally modern film, with a strong homoerotic undercurrent, and the revelation of the series.
French poetic realism reached its apogee with Port of Shadows (1938) and Daybreak (1939), which established Carné as a leading metteur-en-scène. In Shadows, an atmospheric mood piece, Gabin’s an army deserter; in Daybreak, Carné’s greatest film, he’s an honest foundry worker, destroyed by social forces beyond his control. Released three months prior to World War II, this portrait of spiritual disenchantment seems an expression of the turmoil prevalent in France on the eve of catastrophe. When war came, Gabin joined the navy and served on a minesweeper until the fall of France. He signed up with Hollywood, appeared in two mediocre American pictures, then quit to re-enlist with the Free French.
After the war, it took a period of adjustment for the middle-aged actor to regain his stature. By the time he starred in Renoir’s first post-war French film, the exuberant French Cancan (1955), he had bounced back. In Claude Autant-Lara’s marvelously trenchant Four Bags Full (1956), an irreverent farce about black marketeering during the Occupation, he turns in his finest comic performance. After these plums, in sadly routine vehicles, Gabin often uncritically incarnates precisely what he had opposed in his great films of the 1930s: patriarchal authority figures, cops, judges, heads of bourgeois families.